General Motors under scrutiny for diesel emissions

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Auto giant General Motors is now facing the same accusations as other automakers about possible extra emissions from its diesel vehicles.

The same law firm that represented owners of Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler diesel vehicles, Hagens Berman, filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Detroit yesterday against the automaker.

The complaint accuses General Motors of exceeding legal emissions limits in 2011-16 Chevrolet Silverado and Sierra heavy-duty pickup trucks. Around 705,000 vehicles on the road could contain the faulty emission control systems, according to the complaint.

General Motors is denying claims that it used “defeat devices.” Share prices of the company dropped more than 3 percent on the news yesterday but have partly recovered today.

“These claims are baseless, and we will vigorously defend ourselves,” said Dan Flores, a GM spokesman. He added that the Duramax Diesel Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra comply with U.S. EPA and California Air Resources Board emissions regulations.

General Motors joins Volkswagen AG and at least four other automakers — Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler AG, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV, Peugeot SA and Renault SA — whose diesel vehicles have been scrutinized by regulators or consumers. This week, the Justice Department sued Fiat Chrysler over accusations that it used defeat devices on its diesel trucks, seeking to join an existing class-action lawsuit.

The law firm behind the General Motors complaint did its own on-road emissions testing to find that the trucks emit higher pollution at temperatures below 68 degrees or above 86 degrees. The excess emissions could reach four or five times allowable limits, according to the suit.

EPA and ARB have not yet made any move to further test the diesel trucks or take any action against General Motors.

Brian Johnson, a financial analyst at Barclays Capital, wrote that the lawsuit could be “fishing” for a settlement from GM in a research note to clients.

“We’d only know that it’s more serious if the EPA steps in,” he wrote.

John German of the International Council on Clean Transportation said more lab testing would be required to determine whether GM did deceive regulators or exceed legal emissions limits.

“It’s still unclear to me whether this is a genuine violation or something that’s conceivably part of a normal operating standard, but there’s certainly major questions being raised by the data,” he said.

The increased scrutiny of diesel vehicles since Volkswagen was found to be deliberately misleading regulators on emissions has largely focused on the light-duty vehicles marketed as using “clean” diesel. Car companies have increasingly introduced these vehicles in the past decade in part to meet stringent standards — but they make up only a tiny fraction of total sales.

The use of diesel has been more common for a longer time in the heavy-duty sector, which can range from large pickups like the Silverado and Sierra identified in the complaint to 18-wheelers and garbage trucks.

That means regulators and heavy-duty manufacturers have presumably had more time and experience to develop technologies that meet the standards, German said.

In the late 1990s, EPA sued manufacturers of heavy-duty engines for using defeat devices leading to nitrogen oxide emissions three times the allowable level on highways. At the time, it was the largest Clean Air Act enforcement action in history. Seven manufacturers of heavy-duty diesel engines, comprising 95 percent of the U.S. heavy-duty diesel engine market, spent more than $1 billion to settle the charges in 1998.